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Drive or arousal?

There are many theories of motivation.

Drive reduction theory is another.


Although now seldom used in human psychology, drive is a word still commonly used in the dog world, so it's worth discussing.



"What is the main idea of drive theory?


Drive-reduction theory is based on the idea that the primary motivation behind all human behavior is to reduce ‘drives.’


A ‘drive’ is a state of arousal or discomfort that is triggered by a person’s physiological or biological needs, such as hunger, thirst, and the need for warmth.


According to the theory, when a person’s drive emerges, they will be in an unpleasant state of tension which causes them to behave in such a way that this tension is reduced. (If hungry, they seek food. If thirsty, they seek drink. If cold, they seek warmth etc.)


To reduce the tension they feel, they will seek out ways to satisfy their biological needs.


Drive-reduction theory is based on the concept of homeostasis, which is the idea that the body actively works to maintain a state of balance or equilibrium."


"According to drive reduction theory, all motivated behavior arises from drives, basically needs or wants stemming from a disruption in homeostasis (a state of equilibrium). The higher the level of arousal, the greater the drive (Hull, 1952)."


The connection between arousal and drive is clear - BUT what I see happening in dog training is that people think that wildly excited (highly aroused) dogs are showing high drive.


The well meaning owners then provide more and more active, exciting activity.


There does need to be a level of arousal to get things done, but more and more isn’t better and better. The opposite occurs.


This shows that performance is low when arousal is low. Boredom, disinterest, relaxed or calm animals just won’t learn much or do much.


As arousal increases, performance improves. The animal pays attention and is motivated to act.


There is a point where the arousal becomes overwhelming (the stress zone).  


Performance deteriorates because the animal is too aroused to think straight or act sensibly.


If we have a high arousal dog – we need to work more on lowering arousal to keep it within the optimal zone. 


Please note, a quiet, low activity dog may not be in a state of low arousal. They may be overwhelmed and shutdown. More and more pressure to get them 'up and excited' may just add to their stress.


This is why we need to do our absolute best to understand our individual animals.

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